Breaking Out of The Box

hangingmeatIn retrospect, Fringe-ology was an act of rebellion—my bid to escape the usual strictures of journalism and cover topics usually reserved for philosophers, scientists, mystics and skeptics.

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In a typical scenario, I pitch a story or get an assignment and figure out what questions I’ll need to answer along the way. A story I recently wrote about violence in Philadelphia, for example, led me to start investigating the neuroscience underlying Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. But when I wrote Fringe-ology, I put the questions I wanted to answer first: Are we alone in the universe? What happens when we die? Is there a God? Is there any benefit to be gained from ancient spiritual practices, like prayer, meditation and lucid dreaming? What can we learn, from science and mysticism, that might help us all lead better lives? Is there really a conflict between science and mysticism, or only a persistent and unfounded complaint of our culture?

With these questions in mind, I sat in a bar in New York’s West Village and started sketching out ideas on a series of cocktail napkins: What events might I investigate, what people might I interview, to begin answering these questions?

Originally, I sketched out 14 chapters, which eventually reduced down to 11. Incredibly, the chapter order I conceived over my third beer held up.

My editor at Harper read the finished manuscript, a couple of years later, and reported that he was pleasantly surprised at how much work I put into the research.

I enjoyed the compliment. And I never told him that I didn’t really feel like I had been working.

I traveled to Tucson, Arizona to see consciousness researcher Stuart Hameroff; to Stephenville, Texas, to meet with a group of UFO witnesses; to West Palm Beach, Florida, to meet with astronaut Dr. Edgar Mitchell; to the big island of Hilo, in Hawaii, to learn how to lucid dream; to Seattle, to attend a conference of academics who study mental telepathy. And as time passed, I realized that I’d changed. I felt more confident and relaxed in general. Lucid dreaming and meditation had done that for me. I found that these heavy, existential questions no longer filled me with dread or fear but excitement. I had gotten comfortable with the unknown and I understood the opportunity before me. If I could take the reader on the same journey, they might wind up in the same place—and enjoy the same sudden sense of freedom.

Here in America, we occupy a cultural moment in which our most dominant thinkers tend to equate science with the best humanity has to offer. Fundamentalist religion dominates the media, while spirituality, on the other hand, is greeted with immediate suspicion—a mere vestige of primitive superstitions. I now understood this black and white thinking to be, well, bullshit. And I started to think of Fringe-ology as a kind of prison escape yarn—a story about how anyone might slip through the bars of the cell we’re encouraged to live inside and explore these big questions for ourselves.

In short then, if you’ve ever felt shy about your own spiritual yearnings, if you’ve ever felt the least bit embarrassed about your interest in topics commonly labeled “paranormal,” stop. You have good reason—a loaded word, in these times—to believe there is so much more to you than meat.

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